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Three miracles: Denise Mariner's breast cancer story

Denise Mariner
Posted on: 11/02/2022

Few people would call a cancer diagnosis a blessing, but Denise Mariner is one of those few. Even though she is an oncology nurse at the Idaho Cancer Center, this is the first time she has really shared her story as a breast cancer survivor. Her journey took place as a series of three miracles, beginning with a chance encounter at work when she was 53 years old.

“It was so random,” begins Denise. “Back in 2018, I was a Pediatric Intensive Care nurse at EIRMC [Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center]. One day, I came across a lady who was lost in the hospital. She was there for her mammogram, so I walked her to Women’s Imaging. Being there reminded me that it had been quite a while since my last mammogram, 2 ½ years in fact.”

With no family history of cancer, Denise was convinced that she would never have to face such an illness.

“We have no history of cancer in our family. None. I thought I was safe. I did not think it was a big deal if I missed it [a mammogram]. But since I was there [Women’s Imaging], I decided to schedule an appointment. When they called me back after my mammogram, I wasn’t worried because I’ve been called back before. They wanted to do a biopsy, but I still wasn’t worried.”

While waiting for biopsy results, Denise’s life went on as usual. She and her husband took a trip to Boise for a friend’s priesthood ordination as a deacon in the Catholic Church. She was together with her prayer group in Boise when Dr. Lemon’s call came through. Even before answering, Denise knew she had cancer. Her second miracle took place at that moment.

“I just felt God’s calmness come over me when I got the call. With my prayer group together at the time, we were able to go off together and pray. I was anointed and blessed. After that, I felt peace.”

Denise was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC), which occurs in the areas of the breast that produce milk. ILC is the second most common form of breast cancer and affects approximately 10% of women with invasive breast cancer.

“Hearing the word ‘invasive’ was scary,” admits Denise, “you hear that and think the worst. But I just didn’t know enough about it. Waiting for the MRI results was nerve wracking too. But I still felt at peace.”

ILC does not always cause symptoms and is a slow-growing cancer, so it often goes undetected without a mammogram. Symptoms that a woman might notice include a nipple that has turned inward, a change in the texture of breast skin, or an area of thickening, fullness, or swelling in the breast itself. Any breast changes should prompt a call to the doctor. Since ILC can spread to the lymph nodes and bloodstream or cause metastatic breast cancer, an annual mammogram is a must for catching it in early stages.

Once Denise had her diagnosis, things moved fast.

“In just one week, Dr. Boyd Southwick had me diagnosed and got me set up for surgery and treatment. I met with Dr. Lemon to learn more about my cancer and met with radiation oncology to make a plan. Everything happened very quickly. I had surgery to remove the tumor, and they found that the nodes and margins were clear, so I didn’t need chemotherapy. Just 5 weeks of radiation therapy and one boost, then I started my meds. My doctor assured me that this therapy is as effective as a mastectomy.”

In less than two months, Denise went from diagnosis to cure. Though she will need to take hormone suppressing medications to prevent recurrence, her prognosis is great.

“I take an Aromatase inhibitor—they just call it AI—to suppress hormones that feed cancer growth. If I take it faithfully, my survival rate is about 90%. I have a higher chance of being hit by a car or struck by lightning,” she laughs.

“As of September 22, I’m four years cancer free. When I look back now, it’s a just a bump in the road. The further you get away from it, the less you worry about it. Besides, it’s really out of my hands.”

Friends, family, and coworkers supported Denise through her treatment and recovery period. Her managers at EIRMC gave her time off whenever she needed it, and her husband was there for her always.

“My husband, Jerry, he’s a rock. He’s just amazing and I appreciate him so much. My three kids sent me a big care package with funny letters, and I loved it. And so many prayers were said for me. You learn what is most important to cancer patients when you are a cancer patient. And I remember that when I’m caring for my patients now,” she explains.

Which brings us to miracle number three: a new career as an oncology nurse at the Idaho Cancer Center at EIRMC. In 2018, Denise was perfectly happy with her job in the PICU, so she wasn’t looking for a change.

“When I first went to the cancer center, they were just opening a clinic and needed an oncology nurse. It seemed like the job was made just for me,” Denise says. “I feel like my cancer was a gift because God opened the door for me to work there. Now that my kids are raised, this is my new mission.

“Anyone can have empathy. But having had cancer myself, I really understand what the patients are going through. I pray for every patient. I support them as best as I can. It’s a great vocation.”

As an oncology nurse and breast cancer survivor, Denise has an important message for all women:

“Don’t wait! Don’t miss your mammogram. One in eight women will get breast cancer during her lifetime. Envision eight of your closest friends—chances are, one of them will get breast cancer. Or it could be you.”

Photo courtesy of Post Register.

Denise Mariner
Posted on: 11/02/2022

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